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8 Walt Disney World experiences that don't require a park ticket

Sept. 21, 2022
11 min read
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A trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando often comes with a bit of sticker shock. A one-day pass starts at $109 and quickly goes up from there based on the day you want to go, if you want to park hop, etc. If you're arriving late in the day, departing early, or only want to spend a few hours in the parks, that cost can be a really tough pill to swallow.

Luckily, there are still ways to enjoy Disney magic without spending big every single day you're in town.

When I visit Disney with my family, I always book the hotel and park tickets separately so I'm not paying for a full park day on my travel days. I've come to really enjoy those first and last days of vacation that allow me to kick back and relax or go out and explore Disney property without feeling like I'm missing valuable time inside the parks.

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With everything from a tiki bar to a safari available with no park ticket required, the suggestions below may make you want to tack an extra day onto your Orlando getaway just to explore without a ticket.

Related: How much does it cost to go to Disney World?

Explore Disney Springs

TODD ANDERSON

Disney's sprawling shopping and entertainment center is one of my favorite first-day vacation destinations.

I start with dinner — my son and I almost always bee-line to sparkling, grand Morimoto for dumplings and the addictive sticky spare ribs, then pick up a gooey Gideon's hub-cap-size chocolate chip cookie ($6), but there are dozens of fun options spanning multiple price points to choose from.

Then, properly fueled, I begin shopping.

Disney Springs is the home of Orlando's largest Mickey-themed gift shop, World of Disney, where you'll often find limited edition and special collections. You could also pop into Disney's Days of Christmas for holiday shopping year-round or The Art of Disney for high-end collectibles.

Related: The Disney Springs hotels: How to get Disney benefits at bargain prices

You can make customized souvenirs at Lego with a personalized mini figure of yourself or your friends and family for just $12. Over at the M&M store, you can create custom candy -- with a photo, text and personalized colors, too -- from $20.

For a quick pick-me-up, head to the rooftop of the Coca-Cola store, where you can recreate the "sodas from around the world" feel from Epcot's Club Cool with an "Around the World" sampling of 15 international flavors for $16. You can also visit a Dole Whip kiosk in Disney Springs if you want some of that classic frozen treat on a day that you're not in the parks.

Disney Springs isn't all shopping and snacking. You'll be able to watch live performers (for free) or bowl a round at Splitsville Lanes. Cirque du Soleil's "Drawn to Life" performs under the big top at Disney Springs, too, but that's a slightly pricier endeavor.

MATT STROSHANE

Disney Springs is also where you'll find Disney's coolest attractions outside the theme parks. One is the Aerophile, a tethered hot air balloon that rises over Disney Springs and offers a birds-eye view of the area ($25 per person).

Then there are the Amphicars, vintage-style convertible cars that are super cool boats, too. It costs $125 per car for a ride for three to four people, and if you eat at the New England-themed Boathouse first (which is on the list of the best restaurants at Disney) and spend $50 or more there, you'll get a $25 credit to use on a ride.

Celebrate Mardi Gras

SUMMER HULL

Hop on a free water taxi from Disney Springs to cruise along the Sassagoula River, which starts to feel just like the Louisiana bayou as you reach the closest thing to New Orleans in Orlando: the Port Orleans Riverside and French Quarter Resorts.

Here, the cobblestone streets are filled with gas lamps, wrought-iron balconies, delicate magnolia blossoms and colorful Mardi Gras decorations. Live jazz keeps things hopping.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

My favorite part of a visit here: Ordering fresh-from-the-fryer, powdered-sugar-drenched beignets ($7). Tip: Hit the bar for some alcohol-infused ones. Try some N'awlins favorites like gumbo and jambalaya for a taste of the bayou at Boatwrights Dining Hall.

For a fee, you can also take a horse-drawn carriage ride ($55 for four adults, or two adults and three children) along the river for a true bayou experience.

Enjoy an African safari

SUMMER HULL

The incredible, African-themed Animal Kingdom Lodge is more than just a place to stay, it's truly an immersive adventure. I've stayed here in the past, but even when I'm not a guest, I often come to spend time and enjoy the atmosphere and theming.

Even without booking a room, you can see wild animals and experience the African savanna for free by simply walking through the lobby and heading to the lush, landscaped outdoor area behind the hotel.

This savanna area is home to 30 species of wildlife — including tree-nibbling giraffes, ostriches and zebra. Animal experts are on hand to answer any questions and there is a schedule of cultural programs —including drumming and storytelling — that take place in the soaring lobby.

If you visit in the evening, rent a pair of night-vision binoculars to view nocturnal animals (note that the binoculars are not always available, but when they are, you'll often find them near the pool area) and then grab a seat around the outdoor bonfire. At times, Disney has also offered evening safaris that depart from Animal Kingdom Lodge for a fee.

While you're here, don't miss another one of our favorite restaurants at Disney World, Boma — Flavors of Africa, a massive buffet filled with authentic tastes of the African continent ranging from Moroccan couscous to South African bobotie (a version of shepherd's pie). The South African wine list is also worth exploring.

Related: How to use points to buy Disney tickets

Play Mickey mini golf

MARIAH WILD

There's good news for Disney fans looking for the park's one-of-a-kind theming without paying park fees: The two miniature golf courses that are located at Walt Disney World have mega Disney style but prices as small as their greens.

For just $14 per adult and $12 per kid ages 3-9 (tax not included), you can play 18 holes of themed putt-putt at Winter Summerland where you'll find two courses — one "winter" with sparkling fake snow and a Christmas theme — and one "summer" with bright splashes of color. Also, Fantasia Gardens celebrates the animated classic Fantasia with all manner of over-the-top holes that sport everything from giant horns that you putt into to foliage shaped into mystical creatures.

Bonus: You can easily reach the mini golf courses from the Swan, Dolphin and Swan Reserve.

Related: My experience saving money by renting DVC points

Dine with Mickey and all of his friends

Want to have breakfast with Mickey or dinner with a princess? Some of the best Disney character dining experiences I've had are actually at Disney's properties outside the theme parks.

Find the big-eared star every morning at Chef Mickey's in the Contemporary Hotel alongside his pals Pluto, Goofy and Donald — one of my favorite ways to start the day.

At Disney's Polynesian Village Resort, Lilo and Stitch welcome again welcome breakfast guests beginning on Sept. 27.

You can also have breakfast in grand style with Goofy and his pals at the Four Seasons Orlando Resort on Thursday and Saturday mornings. Dress in your Disney finest for breakfast at Topolino's Terrace at Riviera Resort with special guests Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Daisy.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

For another interesting character meal outside the parks, the Evil Queen is a fan favorite at the very unique character meal held at Artist Point at Disney's Wilderness Lodge.

Go wild, wild western

Disney's Fort Wilderness Lodge transports you to Yellowstone National Park, complete with an outdoor reproduction of Old Faithful that shoots water an impressive 120 feet into the air (catch the free show on the half hour from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.).

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

After you visit the Lodge, head back to the nearby Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, where nearly 800 acres of sprawling pine trees and oaks create a cool respite from the Florida heat.

SUMMER HULL

You can stroll through the walking trails to spot wildlife such as deer, ducks, armadillos and rabbits for free, or saddle up at the stables to ride the range (45 minutes for $55). For a truly special and inexpensive outing, paddle a canoe or kayak for less than $10 per person. There are also pony rides for younger guests for just $8 each at the Tri-Circle-D Ranch at Fort Wildrness, where you can also visit some horses that are in the parades and pull the Main Street Vehicles.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

For a western-themed evening, head to the recently returned Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, a Disney classic where chuck wagon grub (think: ribs in a pail) is accompanied by lots of old-fashioned entertainment such as vaudeville, singing and dancing.

Stroll the boardwalk

KATIE GENTER

Disney's Boardwalk Resort sits on a replica of a turn-of-the-century boardwalk, with family-friendly bike and surrey (yes, with the fringe on top) rentals ($20), decadent boardwalk snacks and even a dance hall to add to the classic Roaring '20s Atlantic City atmosphere. You'll also sometimes find outdoor live music outside along the Boardwalk.

WALT DISNEY WORLD

Follow the walkway and you'll arrive at the back entrance of Epcot where you can step into a gondola to catch a ride on Disney's Skyliner for a fun, and free, view of the park.

Watch fireworks and dazzling lights

Every evening, a dazzling fireworks show takes place in The Magic Kingdom and a parade of glittering boats floats across the waters around Disney's Contemporary, Polynesian and Grand Floridian resorts.

You don't have to enter The Magic Kingdom or pay a cent to watch the show. In fact, you can only spot the Electrical Water Pageant from the beaches outside the three resorts, and the fireworks can easily be seen from these areas as well.

SUMMER HULL

My favorite viewing spot is from the Polynesian's soft sand beach amidst the palm trees and the tiki torches. Order a cult favorite pineapple whip at the Pineapple Lanai stand for a sweet treat while you watch the show.

While you're there, you may even spot an outdoor movie underway, which is something that is common across many Disney resorts as the sun goes down.

Bonus for adults: Trader Sam's Tiki Bar, tucked away on the first floor, has the best tropical drinks in Orlando — especially the Dark and Tropical Stormy ($14), which comes with a gratis light show. Kids are welcome before 8 p.m., too.

Related: Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort: Why one of Disney World’s original resorts remains one of the best

Featured image by SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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  • Annual Fee

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    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases